|Notes from Indian Country|
By Tim Giago (Nanwica Kciji)
© Unity South Dakota
Racism isn’t just confined to individuals. Sometimes democratic governments are guilty of it.
Take the case of the Japanese Americans confined to concentration camps during World War II simply because they were Japanese; an injustice that was eventually corrected with restitution.
And then there are the strange cases that occurred in the 1950s under a federal government’s new policy called “termination.” A United States Senator from Utah named Arthur V. Watkins, a Republican, was the “terminator” in many of these cases.
Senator Watkins determined that the only way to treat the “Indian problem” was to eliminate it by taking away all of the government’s connections to the Indian tribes and setting them free. He believed he knew what was good for the Indians whether they consented to termination or not.
The policies of termination turned out to be so horrific for so many innocent Indians that the policy was eventually dropped and tribes that had been terminated were restored to their original status prior to termination.
One day about 20 years ago I got a letter from a lady named Oranna Felter, a former member of the Ute Indian Tribe of Utah who was no longer considered an Indian because she and 490 members of the tribe were terminated as Indians because they did not have 50 percent degree of Ute Indian blood. Every member of the tribe with 50 degrees or less was cut from the tribal rolls, or as Ms. Felter told me, “As if we were cattle or sheep.”
Last week Ms. Felter said, “We have put lawsuit after lawsuit in the courts and we have been kicked out each time. We don’t have any income so we’ve had to do this on donations from our people who are not rich. After years and years of struggles to regain what we lost, our lands, gas, oil, minerals, and our identity, we are fed up. My people are old and tired, our babies on the rolls are now in their early 60s and I have seen horror stories you could never imagine that has happened to my people. I told my kids the hardest fight I ever had to fight was to be who I am and who I was born, an American Indian.”
She added, “When your own tribe is kicking you in the teeth because they don’t want to share with you, it’s pretty damned hard.”
The 490 terminated Ute Indians said no to termination. And yet because they were of mixed-blood, they were singled out for termination while the rest full bloods of the Ute Tribe were not.
In 1975, Congress set up the American Indian Policy Review Commission headed by Senator James Abourezk of South Dakota and Congressman Lloyd Meeds of Washington. Task Force Ten, under this Commission, was headed by Jo Jo Hunt with members, John Stevens, Robert V. Bojarcas and George E. Tomer. Their job was to investigate “Terminated and Non Federally Recognized American Indians and the effects of Termination.
They visited the Ute Reservation and named the 490 terminated mixed-bloods “The Terminated Uinta Band of Utes of Utah.” The Task Force determined that “Termination was another “experiment” however ill-conceived and destructive with no controls and no provisions for reversal. Termination was not initiated by the Indians, was not adequately understood by them and was not for the most part “not consented by them.”
The terminated Uinta Band of Utes were given slips of paper called “Shares” that, in the most complicated legal talk, supposedly explained to the terminated Indians how their lands would be handled after termination. The Shares were held in Trust and each individual Indian was treated as a child by the Trustee in determining the value and disposal of the “Shares.”
Many of the “Shares” which included land and mineral rights were snapped up by local Mormons and by some corporations. It should also be noted that when Ute lands were broken up into allotments under the Dawes Act of 1887 and each individual Ute’s name was put on the list of allotees, after all of the land was accounted for there remained thousands of acres that were not allotted. These lands were put up for sale to the general public and the parents of Sen. Arthur V. Watkins snapped up many acres of this Ute land. The Dawes Act was another federal act by the United States to Americanize the Indian and another slick way to gain millions of acres of Indian land.
In 1975 the American Indian Policy Review Commission made recommendations to restore terminated tribes to their original status. That was a long time ago and the Uinta Band of Utes is still waiting.
Ms. Felter told me that of the 490 terminated Utes many are dying and most are elderly and ill. “When I was terminated I was 11 years old and I did not and could not vote for termination. All I know is we were forcibly subjected to the de-indianization Senator Watkins concocted for us. When I was still very young my parents died as a result of post-termination deprivation and disease as did my younger sister and many others.”
She concluded, “Tim, we have been very patient, but we can wait no longer. Our children and our children’s children are depending on us to find a way to recover the Treaty Rights stolen from us. We need your help. We have tried to follow conventional rules and policies to make our voices heard, but we have been ignored, ridiculed, abused and shut out.”
A part of what Oranna Felter expressed to me was sent in a letter to President Barak Obama. I hope that someone reads this column and writes to their Congressman and that Obama reads the letter from Ms. Felter and that justice will finally come to the terminated Uinta Band of Utes to correct a horrible injustice foisted upon them so many years ago.
If the government can act to bring justice for the Japanese Americans, surely they can find a way to bring justice to the Uinta Band of Utes, the First Americans.
Oranna Felter can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Tim Giago, an Oglala Lakota, was born, raised and educated on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota. He was a Nieman Fellow at Harvard in the Class of 1991. He was inducted into the South Dakota Newspaper Hall of Fame in 2007. He can be reached at Unitysodak1@knology.net
More from Tim Giago:
Tim Giago: Was the Indian Reorganization Act
good or bad? (1/28)
Tim Giago: Eulogies for
three great leaders in Indian Country (1/21)
Tim Giago: The destruction of Wounded Knee by AIM
in 1973 (1/14)
Tim Giago: 'Wiping away
the tears' after Wounded Knee 1890 (12/31)
Tim Giago: Incompetence overwhelms at Bureau of
Indian Affairs (1/7)